Erick Varela, a PG&E apprentice and three-year member of IBEW Local 1245, was featured in a White House ceremony on April 30 that showcased the federal government’s “Joining Forces” initiative, which encourages businesses to train or hire military veterans and military spouses.
A short time ago, Erick Varela’s journey from service in Iraq to being introduced at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama would have been more than implausible.
Ms. Obama recognized Varela for successfully completing a 16-week course in August 2009 designed to prepare military veterans for entry-level utility industry jobs. He is now an apprentice electrician in Tracy, Calif.
The two-tour combat veteran, who had seen hard times at home, expressed gratitude for his employer and his union. He believes the Joining Forces initiative is showing that veterans are a “huge advantage for their leadership, ability to think and listen, adapt and overcome obstacles.”
A union journeyman heavy equipment operator before leaving for Iraq, where he served as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division from 2002 to 2008, Varela had come home to a construction market that had crashed.
“I joined the military to serve my country like members of my family, then come home and go to work,” Varela told the IBEW Electrical Worker newspaper. But after six years away, he says, “the dispatcher at Operating Engineers Local 3 told me I should consider looking for another job.”
For a time, he operated equipment for a nonunion company in Utah, then returned to California, but couldn’t find steady work. Things got worse.
Varela, and his wife, Katey, alternated between living with his father and living in their car in San Francisco. They sent one of their daughters to live with her grandparents in Utah.
Varela told PG&E’s online magazine, Currents, “Back in Iraq, I had a purpose. I felt worse being homeless. It made me feel like a failure.”
Experienced in working with natural gas, Varela filled out an application and was accepted by PG&E’s PowerPathway, a program that pursues veterans for the company’s Bridge to Utility Worker training programs.
“The program gave me general information, knowledge and skill to be an entry-level worker. And, by attending classes with other veterans, it was easier to make a transition in careers,” says Varela.
PG&E had no immediate openings upon Varela’s graduation from the program, but the company sent his resume to All Day Electric, a Local 1245 signatory contractor.
Varela was hired and quickly took responsibility for a crew of up to eight workers. After demonstrating his effectiveness, he was sent to the company’s parent firm, where he became a controller/scheduler supervising eight to nine crews of up to six workers and meeting with city officials to keep them abreast of utility work being performed in their jurisdictions.
Valera picked up a lot from his military experience. “I lead from the front. I never ask my crews to do something I wouldn’t.”
Perhaps other managers would get frustrated running 20-man crews, he says. “But the military teaches you to adapt and find different ways to reach an outcome, to listen to your guys and push forward.” It’s pretty mundane work, he says, compared to being in battle, getting shot at and seeing buddies die.
“Vets don’t want a handout; they want a hand up,” says Varela, who entered his apprenticeship program in 2011.
“It (PowerPathway) opens so many doors and it’s free, which is amazing,” says Varela. “It’s why we need government funding to get more classes going, to spread it to other states and industries, not just the utilities.”
Today, Varela is nearly debt free and hoping to buy a house in the San Joaquin Valley for himself, his wife, and their four children: daughters Blake, Brooklyn and Kelsey, and son Chase, who was born in July. He has time and money to hunt and savor his good fortune. But his thoughts often turn to the obstacles facing other veterans.
“I’m one of the lucky vets, but there are still a lot of struggling veteran families out there,” says Varela, who keeps in touch with a few of his former comrades. Some are doing well; others have had problems finding work.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to raise awareness about all the work PG&E is doing to support our vets,” he says. “I would love to be able to work with PG&E and Local 1245 to start a charity for local military families. There are still steps we can make to not only hire vets, but hopefully change their lives for the better.”